In the Martin Scorsese-produced Amazon documentary about the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, biographer Dennis McNally calls the group “the most American of all bands.” He deduces that if you take all the individual members’ backgrounds and sounds “and you dissolve egos with acid and stir vigorously,” you get the Dead.
That concoction of psychedelic feelings and wild talents channeled through instruments and voices created wildly loyal fans known as Deadheads. They not only followed the band in a whirl of tie-dye and long locks on tour for 30 years, but also created legions of cover bands. The aptly named Unlimited Devotion is one such group, founded in Florida by Al Zilinsky in 2012. Its current lineup includes guitarist Jon Zias, drummer/lead vocalist Dan DeGregory, keyboardist Reverend Funky D, and bassist Joe Falconeri.
“Dan, John, and I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, and we were all jamming with bands in our teens. It’s in our bones,” Zilinsky reflects. “We don’t try to copy and sound exactly like the Grateful Dead. We are more of the mindset of taking their music and expressing it our own way, but providing some familiarity in our sound that definitely radiates the Dead vibe.”
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Zias owns the popular Cuvee 103, a restaurant in Safety Harbor. “As the senior member of this band — we're talking age,” he laughs, “I got turned on to the Dead in the eighth grade in 1967 and saw my first show in 1968. I played in arguably the first Dead cover band, called Cavalry, which was formed in 1969,” he explains. In 1974, he took a break from playing the band’s music, but an audition with Dead bassist Phil Lesh brought him back into the fold. He and DeGregory, a 30-year music veteran, session musician, music teacher, and performer in the Tampa Bay area, played together in another Dead cover act, Uncle John's Band. Zias left that group, but DeGregory still plays with both. Talk about devotion.
The group will celebrate Jerry Garcia — Dead guitarist, renowned legend, and one of the most celebrated Spanish-American musicians — at the Wynwood Yard August 1, what would have been Garcia's 75th birthday. “Those who love to dance will find just the right songs to get their asses shaking out there in the audience,” Zilinsky says. “Those that like improvisational music and jazz and funk overtones will hear that familiarity in their music, and the Dead always had a large bluegrass fan following. Jerry was always fond of bluegrass and [was] a very accomplished banjo player prior to picking up the electric guitar.”
Zilinsky has seen interest in Unlimited Devotion grow with the launch of pop star John Mayer’s band, Dead and Company, in which he plays with three original members of the Grateful Dead. But DeGregory muses there's another reason their audiences have fans from 8 to 80 years old. “Music fans — people, in general, I think — crave a sense of community and belonging. Shared experience is a powerful bond, and I think concertgoers are struck by the emotional uplift of a Dead show. A similar dynamic exists in segments of the EDM scene, which my 20-year-old son has pointed out. He grew up regularly attending concerts and music festivals with our family.”
Most important for UD, though, is that the Dead is simply fun to play. Zias points out, “I love the fact that the Dead's music is open to lots of interpretive possibilities. I studied jazz at Berklee College of Music, so I have an improvisor’s heart, but my head is still greatly affected by my psychedelic experiences, many of which included some of the greatest shows in the GD's history.
“Since we are a bit more studied in the art of improvisation than most Dead cover bands, you can expect a lot of surprises, twists, and turns. We also play with an energy level that's more akin to the young Grateful Dead. Most important, there is an emotional depth and a sense of drama to this band that I do believe touches most of the people that see us play.”
A trip (both literal and psychedelic) to the Wynwood Yard's Jerry Garcia birthday celebration might be just the way to get touched and turned on to the sounds of the Dead.
Unlimited Devotion's bandmates share a few of their favorite songs to play:
"'That's It for the Other One' is the musical embodiment of a psychedelic experience," DeGregory says, "at turns sublime and psychotic. It's a beautiful open palette, and it presents a perfect opportunity to deconstruct, to explore, and to reconstitute a song harmonically, rhythmically, and texturally. It's the whole package."
Zias says, "'Dark Star' defines the beauty and openness that drew me to them and can allow one to be plugged in to its spirit while being themselves musically."
Zias also points to "Comes a Time." He says, "It's my favorite original ballad — shows how beautifully Garcia's melodic sense hugs Hunter's lyrics."
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Says Zilinsky: “I like playing songs that get a big response out of the audience when we nail the music — songs that aren’t so easy to play. One such song is 'Terrapin Station,' one of the Dead’s most monumental songs sung by Jerry Garcia. It took me a while to learn it, and it's such a pretty song with different nuances and distinctly different parts. I have to be on my toes and really feel it to nail it, and when we do, the audience recognizes that and responds accordingly."
"Another tune I love to play is 'Music Never Stopped,'" Zilinsky says. "It just begs for you to get up on the dance floor and shake it with the band. It never fails, guaranteed crowd pleaser if executed well. Lots of changes and also a very cool improvisational section at the end."
Jerry Garcia Day. 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 1, at the Wynwood Yard, 56 NW 29th St., Miami; thewynwoodyard.com. Admission is free.